Chicago Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson had a chance to hire a head coach who is better suited to the high-tempo, three-point-shooting basketball movement. Instead, he extended Jim Boylen's contract.
"Jim has a strong vision on where he wants to take this team, and he has done a great job establishing the culture that we want this organization to stand for as we continue to progress," said Paxson in the team's press release. "He has tremendous passion for developing young talent, is a strong communicator and a good fit for this team. The organization is confident in the direction that he is taking our players, and we are committed to him."
The front office's confidence in Boylen is what it is. Boylen is a nice man. He has demanded improvement from his players. He is a sharp basketball mind. He had good moments over the course of a down season and won over a group that was skeptical (to put it lightly) when he first took over. His philosophy is clear—defense, commitment to the cause, accountability. Those sound great on paper and are all things a young team needs. But even if there is improvement, the decision to extend Boylen before even considering another option to fill the role symbolizes the Bulls' recent dry spell of success and ensures that past mistakes won't be corrected.
Boylen's tenure as a head coach got off to a pretty rocky start—the players nearly staged a walkout after Boylen pulled the starters in the third quarter of a game against the Celtics (the second game of a back-to-back) that turned into a 56-point blowout. He didn't want to "double-lose" by missing out on a high-intensity practice the following morning.
According to Yahoo Sports, after "three two-and-a-half-hour practices in his first week that included extra wind sprints and players doing military-style push-ups," the players contacted the National Basketball Players Association. This led to the formation of a "leadership committee," which only hurt the perception of the team.
This was only the first week on the job!
Things simmered down after a 5-5 month of February that featured a top-two offensive rating in basketball. Zach LaVine offered to pay Boylen's fine for an ejection, and things seemed as jolly as they ever would be.
Still, this move to lock up Boylen is vintage Bulls shortsightedness.
Beyond his job to "prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child," Boylen's dated offensive tactics are not helping prepare the young core of Bulls players to succeed in the modern NBA, which should be his sole purpose with this group.
Boylen's hilarious coachisms are great for content, but it remains to be seen whether his coaching will ever translate to wins. The Bulls were severely injury-plagued this past season—and easy excuse—while that great month of February is reason for optimism in the future.
The truth is Boylen's play style is not that high-paced, three-point-heavy system that resulted in a .500 month of basketball. The Bulls were 20th in pace and 29th in offense on the year, which suggests February was more of an aberration than philosophical shift. More likely, they just had a hot shooting month (59.1 true shooting percentage, second in the league), compared to 54.1 percent, 28th, over the full season. And sure enough, the Bulls stopped running and kept losing from there on out.
Within the context of those numbers, Boylen prioritized points in the paint above all. The Bulls were fifth in the league in frequency of mid-range shots and 27th in frequency of three-pointers attempted. They prioritized Robin Lopez post-ups over using LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. (when he was healthy) to run up and down the floor and launch threes (27th) and attack in transition (18th). Regardless of any goodwill he has built with the players, by forcing this young team to "crawl before it can walk," Boylen is instilling bad habits, teaching them skills they won't need and neglecting the important habits that will translate to winning basketball in today's NBA.
Rather than slowing things down and pounding the paint, the Bulls need to run like the Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets, other young teams that have leveraged the change in the math of the league to play exciting basketball instead of trying to survive those changes.
Even with an exhaustive head coaching search, maybe Paxson and general manager Gar Forman would have ended up right where they started—believing in Boylen as the best option. But the fundamental process behind these decisions is a microcosm of Chicago's shortcomings over the past few seasons. The Bulls are unwilling to take risks to improve their roster or staff and are one of the few remaining teams that wants to play basketball the way it was played before three-point lines.
The Bulls have had chances to redirect themselves, even with the current management group.
There were other coaching options the front office should have explored. Monty Williams, who just signed with the Suns, or even Igor Kokoskov, who Williams replaced. Dave Joerger, who revamped Sacramento's offense, or maybe a rising assistant like Becky Hammon, Adrian Griffin, Juwan Howard, David Vanterpool, Sam Cassell, Jarron Collins, Jamahl Mosley or Darvin Ham. Maybe someone coaching in Europe like Sarunas Jasikevicius.
Even if Boylen adapts his style and turns out to be more successful than expected, extending him proves that the Bulls will keep spinning their tires in the mud. Even though there are ways out, they are too stubborn to take them.
With the Wizards finally moving on from the dark days of the Ernie Grunfeld era, the Magic and Kings finally making moves into and toward the playoffs and the Timberwolves hiring an analytically inclined president of basketball operations in Gersson Rosas, the group of teams stuck in its ways at the bottom of the league is shrinking. Without some fundamental changes, the Bulls are doomed to a long life in that evaporating pool while the rest of the league laps them.